Mitt Romney’s Entitlement Pitch: Mondaleism Done Right

Mitt Romney’s speech at the AFP summit got a fairly miquetoast reception. Breaking news: Crowds prefer the tubthumping catchphrases of Herman Cain to long discussions of policy reform. Cain played on that in an admirably naked away, mocking politicians who only propose “policies that can pass,” instead of stuff that will solve problems, passed through the Senate by the power of positive thinking.

Romney, whom the media takes more seriously, gave a more wonky speech. I was struck right away by how he introduced the most tricky section, with shades of Walter Mondale.

My dad used to say that “the pursuit of the difficult makes men strong.” Our next president is going to face difficult choices.  Among these will be the future of Social Security and Medicare. In their current form, these programs will go bankrupt. I know that, you know that, and even our friends in the other party know that. The difference is that I will be honest about strengthening and preserving them, and they won’t.

Mondale used a formulation like this to explain the wisdom and inevitability of a tax increase. Romney used it to describe an entitlement shrinkdown that closely resembled Paul Ryan’s. Unlike Ryan, he tackled Social Security – raising the retirement age (but not for people right up against it now), eventually means-testing for lower benefits to people who don’t need it.

First, Medicare should not change for anyone in the program or soon to be in it. We should honor our commitments to our seniors.

Second, as with Social Security, tax hikes are not the solution. We couldn’t tax our way out of unfunded liabilities so large, even if we wanted to.

Third, tomorrow’s seniors should have the freedom to choose what their health coverage looks like. Younger Americans today, when they turn 65, should have a choice between traditional Medicare and other private healthcare plans that provide at least the same level of benefits. Competition will lower costs and increase the quality of healthcare for tomorrow’s seniors.

That’s the Ryan plan, except Romney, like other presidential candidates, also attacks the president for reducing long-term Medicare spending as part of “ObamaCare.” (He doesn’t say he’ll restore it per se: “He’s the only president in modern history who has cut Medicare for seniors—do not forget, it was President Obama who cut $500 billion from Medicare.”)

It was nicely crafted. It was twinned with a Jennifer Rubin interview with Paul Ryan today, in which the Budget chairman endorses the shape of Ryan’s plan. Romney and Perry have gotten very far with a lack of specifics on entitlements, and there still are no numbers, but this was Romney’s bid to become the credible entitlement reformer who won’t waste a Republican mandate in 2012.